I’ve spent a lot of time last week reflecting on the self deprecation I see in tech where folks speak negatively about their knowledge, their work, or just flat out, themselves. It’s often times people I really look up to & even affects folks that have been in software for awhile, 10 years or more. It’s hard for me to hear them talk poorly about themselves, as someone new that has been struggling with my own feelings of technical competency. If they don’t feel good about their work or knowledge, what does that say about my skills?
My original takeaway earlier last week was wrong. I thought that people just had to stop their external negative self talk & that the internal negative self talk would go away. I know that I personally work really hard at not putting myself down in public places because my own feelings & actions are all I have control over. I think this is part of the puzzle towards feeling better about one’s work, but I think it’s far from fair to say that alone is the solution.
I thought back to an excellent presentation I saw at a Meetup awhile ago. The presenter told us before the presentation that it was still a work in progress & that we should ask clarifying questions during the presentation so they could improve it with the feedback they received. People asked lots of great questions & the presenter showed they were truly an expert on what they were presenting! It was so cool. While I didn’t understand every detail, I got a lot out of the presentation.
The presenter put themselves down during the talk a few times, saying that they weren’t explaining something well or that the ideas they were presenting weren’t good ones. A lot of this was their original work & after the presentation I told them I thought it was really cool. I also asked if I could provide a bit of criticism. I told the presenter that I thought their work was really cool & that I thought it could be presented even better if they were able to minimize the amount of negative self talk in this presentation. I told them that their ideas were fascinating & they were bringing them to life, how could they be the harshest critic of their work they were clearly passionate about?
There was something I didn’t consider though when this happened. All this work is open source. The presenter is well known for their other open source work & I know that people complain about one of their projects frequently. I honestly can’t imagine what that feels like, having a mob of people complaining & treating you like shit all the time over issues, or even just differing opinions, on free software. Their use of self deprecation seemed like a defense mechanism to guard their feelings against that criticism.
I’m at the beginning of my journey in open source, contributing to a few projects. I’m still idealistic & believe that FOSS is a way to change the world for the better. But I see all these people on these projects that seem unhappy & that makes me sad. I feel unsure about how people will value my work, my time, & my energy in this space.
I read Geoffroy Couprie’s blog post “FOSS is free as in toilet”. I thought the analogy of needing someone to keep the toilet clean as more people use it was very apt. As more people use a restroom, the messer it gets. The people that use it don’t usually clean it up; they just complain that it’s messy. This falls in line with the negative comments I’ve seen about the Rust 2018 Edition website & the deployment of malware through transfer of ownership of a popular npm module to a malicious actor. I don’t blame maintainers for being burned out because they’re being treated poorly.
I don’t have the answer to this problem I’m seeing. I see maintainers pouring their time & effort into creating things they think are good. I see people that aren’t doing that work, but have the opportunity to participate, just complain. I think we all complain from time to time. I wholeheartedly believe that if you want to complain that you should put in the time & effort to make the thing you’re complaining about better.
I wish I knew a more concrete way to support the people writing FOSS that I believe matter. But for now I’m here trying to pick up good first issues & trying to express how much I appreciate effort, time, & empathy the maintainers & authors of FOSS put into their work. If you’re one of the people that thinks a maintainer of a library is doing a good job, consider sending them a nice note letting them know you appreciate their work & maybe asking how you can help out too.